Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”- Genesis 2:15-17
Why did God place the tree in the garden? This question often comes whenever we study this text; I asked the same question when I was a boy. My Catechism teacher said that it was because God wanted to test us. The answer that worked for a young boy does not make sense to me as an adult. Terms like omniscience did not mean anything to me then but as an adult, they change the way I understand this story. If God knows everything, then He does not need to test us to find out if we love Him. First and foremost, this story wasn’t written for children, but for mature adults. There is something deep and profound about this story which we can miss if we are obsessed with the tree. We need to look beyond the presence of the tree. The tree is a mere symbol. It is symbol of our freedom.
God made humans free agents. In order to be truly free, they must have the capacity to reject Him. The tree was this option. St. John reveals to us that the essence of God’s nature is Love. Every action of God is motivated by Love. The placing of the tree is an act of Love. It is to guarantee that humanity has the freedom to accept or reject God. Therefore, freedom is an essential part of Love. There cannot be true love if there is no freedom.
Igor was doing well for a while at the halfway house. He managed to stay there for almost a year. He even started to believe that there was a future for him beyond the streets. Unfortunately, Igor and Ana Paula terminated their five year relationship and this resulted in an existential crisis for Igor. We tried to respect their privacy and did not pry into the causes and reasons of this sad occurrence. We just dealt with the aftermath. Igor was emotionally crushed. He found himself once again alone in this world. Ana Paula had been his family all these years and now she had given up on him and returned to the streets. Igor refused to regress to his old life. He still wanted to hold onto the possibility of having a better life. After many frank conversations together, he decided to learn a trade. Since, he had always liked cutting his friends’ hair, he asked if we would help him find a hair stylist school.
We had some contacts in this area and found a wonderful project that trained people from all walks of life to work in high end hair salons. This school gave scholarships to young people like Igor and even though there was a waiting list, they made a special concession for us and gave Igor a full scholarship. Everything worked out perfectly and it was like a dream come true. Sad to say, the dream did not last long. Igor begin to regress emotionally into his old street ways before the course begin and eventually gave up in the first week of the course without reason or cause. Then he just simply disappeared. It was only a few weeks after that we learned that he was living with a Pentecostal pastor and his family. The teens in the streets had seen him and they said that he had become a pentecostal preacher. This was later confirmed by other groups working in the streets. All this happened in a span of a month. I would like to be honest and say that I am not sure about it. I do believe that change can happen. We would not be doing this ministry if we do not believe in this. Igor has changed radically over the period we have known him. However, I don’t think that he should be in the pulpit. We don’t want Igor to be setting himself up for failure. Igor is doing what he thinks is best for him within his capacity. We believe that God can use this situation to do something incredible in his life. This is a possibility. However, it doesn’t change the fact that Igor threw away a good opportunity with the school. He is not going to get a second chance in this respect. It wasn’t easy to get him into this school in the first place but it is his freedom to choose what he wants to do with his life.
To be brutally honest, we were disappointed with Igor. We were upset that he just gave up without even talking to us about it. We also felt a little abandoned. After the initial shock, we started to reflect on our work here. We are not here to force anyone to accept our help. To a certain extent, we aren’t here to take anyone out of poverty. We don’t have the resources for this and even if we did, we are not here for this purpose. We don’t believe that all problems are resolved when people are financially better. This is perhaps a simplistic way that some ideologies look at reality. It is not the reality that brought us to this place. It is not the reality that makes churches invest in the lives of people that they will never see or be benefited by. God opened our eyes and ears to perceive a new reality. This reality is only made palpable when we learn to love our neighbors the way God loves us. God does this first and foremost by respecting our freedom. He respects our freedom even when we choose to hate Him. God does not change His love and affection when we use our freedom in a detrimental way. Jesus told us,
“A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” -John 13 : 34
God loved us without disregarding our freedom.
Respecting the freedom of others also means freeing them to do what they deem as right for them even when it can seem to be obviously wrong from our perspective. When Jesus calls us to be servants, it means that we need to recognize the process of growth in people and ourselves. We need to realize that we also make decisions based on our limited wisdom and what we think is good may not necessarily be the absolute Truth. This does not automatically mean that every decision is valid. It only means that none of us have a monopoly on the Truth. Respecting the freedom of others keeps us in check. It humbles us to admit that we might not have everything figured out. Besides, if we are going to follow the footsteps of Jesus in our service, then we need to respect the gift of freedom that God given to all human beings.
As I was writing this post, Igor stopped by for a surprise visit. It had been two months since we last saw him. He came to apologize for leaving the course without talking with us. He wanted us to know that he appreciated our help. He asked if we would continue to walk with him. We said “yes” but now we are perhaps a little wiser than before. We are walking together with Igor knowing that he has the freedom to accept or reject our help. It does not really matter if he accepts our help. It only matters that he knows that he is loved and perhaps this love will empower him to use his freedom for achieve virtuous things in life.